Lead poisoning—the buildup of lead in the body over months or years—is a serious health disorder among children. Lead particles are too small to see and can be present in air, soil, water, and products that are commonly used every day.
Even in small amounts, lead can cause a host of health problems for children. Those include developmental delays, reduced IQ, behavioral problems, nervous system and brain damage, behavior and learning problems (such as hyperactivity), kidney damage, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, and problems with cardiovascular, immunological, and endocrine systems.
Preventing lead exposure
You can do many things to reduce your child’s risk of exposure, including notifying the landlord of peeling or chipping paint if you rent, cleaning regularly, washing items your child comes in contact with, using lead-free dishes, using cold tap water for cooking, and staying aware of toy recalls. Additional information about lead exposure prevention, screening, and treatment is available from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Identifying lead-exposed children
The first step is recognizing that a problem exists. Blood tests are often routinely recommended for children younger than age 2, and your child’s pediatrician may schedule a test as part of a well-child visit. Follow-up testing at 3-month intervals can show if the problem is resolving.
If you answer “yes” to any of the questions below, you should talk with your child’s doctor about testing. (The first three are particularly critical.)
- Does your child live in or regularly visit a house built before 1950?
- Does your child live in or regularly visit a home built before 1978 that’s been remodeled in the past 6 months, or where remodeling is planned?
- Does your child have a sibling or playmate who has been treated for lead poisoning?
- Does your child live with an adult whose job or hobby involves exposure to lead?
- Does your child live near an industry likely to release lead into the environment?
- Does your child live within a block of a major highway or busy street?
- Has your child ever been given home remedies, such as azarcon, greta, or pay looah?
- Has your child ever lived outside the United States?
- Does your family use pottery or ceramics for cooking, eating, or drinking?
- Does your family use hot tap water for cooking or drinking?
- Have you seen your child eat paint chips or soil?
- Have you been told your child has low iron?
- Were you exposed to lead during pregnancy?
Addressing lead exposure
For children with measurable lead levels, parents will need to identify and eliminate any sources. Typical sources include dust and chips from old paint, soil that’s been contaminated, hobby materials, folk remedies, some ceramic dishes, antique furniture (such as vintage or hand-me-down cribs), and improperly painted toys.
In many areas of the country, local or state health departments can help identify the source(s) of lead. If your health department can’t provide an inspector, you’ll want to hire a certified inspector. (See the EPA’s Lead Abatement, Inspection, & Risk Assessment page.)
The level of lead in your child’s blood will decrease over time once the source of exposure is eliminated. A nutritious diet high in calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins C, D, and E may help. If very high lead levels have built up in your child’s system, your child’s doctor may recommend chelation therapy, which involves a medication that binds with the lead so it can be excreted.
Follow-up bloodwork every 3–6 months until your child’s lead concentration is reduced to a safe level will ensure that the problem has been addressed.